Settlers’ Creek, by Carl Nixon (Random House, 2010), 330 pp. $29.99.
I have been an admirer of Carl Nixon ever since, some years ago, I read his short story ‘My Father Running with a Dead Boy’. Settler’s Creek is Nixon’s second novel and, having read this, I want very much to seek out his first, Rocking Horse Road, written in 2007.
The story in Settler’s Creek is told through the third-person perspective of Box Saxton, a man devastated by the sudden death of his stepson. Worse, the boy’s biological father, a Maori elder, takes the body without consent to be buried in ancestral land. Through his shock and grief, and memories of his own unfortunate family life, Box is compelled to set out to recover the son he has lost.
Nixon obviously recognises that much of the emotional power is already in the material and through tasteful changes of tense, from past to present, he adds additional focus as needed. All of which culminates in a simple but evocative style of prose that subtly reinforces themes and provides insight into the lives of the characters and how they may later react.
Box looked at the tools left hanging on the walls of the shed. A lot of them were missing now …. When he was very young Box hadn’t understood that his grandfather had drawn around each tool in here with a heavy marker and then painted in the outline in black on the wall. Back then, Box, the boy, had believed … that the tool had left behind its shadow … He looked at the black marks now, faded but still visible. Surrounded by the smells of linseed and earth, he stood for a long time and stared at the wall of lost shadows.
Yet despite the relative simplicity of plot and style, the issues Settler’s Creek addresses are certainly not so simple. In fact its cluster of thematic concerns are so snarly and gnarly, it took some thought to decide what this novel is really about. An ambivalent book for an ambivalent time: because it hugs the centre of a road that traces the nation’s bicultural faultline, as if testing territoriality, I am sure this book will mean different things to different people.
Initially the main concern appears to be the obvious clash of opposing world-views. And Nixon devotes much of the novel to developing this dynamic: the European equivalent of tangata whenua symbolised by a family bible; the dual cultural background of his stepson Stephen/Tipene; several examples of the inability of both sides to communicate effectively. He clearly wants a balanced view of both cultures.
But this is also where the novel occasionally wavers. Exactly because both sides of the argument have validity, and there are no readily apparent solutions, Nixon must act as a kind of facilitator — an explainer and ameliorator. As a result, there is sometimes the palpable sense of being led by a firm and insistent (‘fatherly’) hand through the issues. I feel the intentions of the story, and the storyteller, would be better served by allowing the reader the same space to think about the events as that which they’re allowed for emotional reaction — otherwise, paradoxically, the novel, wanting to maintain an even keel (overly concerned with everyone getting ‘a fair hearing’), is in danger of tipping into melodrama, bathos, or worse.
Balancing the cultural issues also distracts from what I feel is the novel’s true thematic focus: not the larger issue of social politics, but the ostensibly smaller – but no less important – question of what constitutes true fatherhood? This is where the novel derives its true power and purpose, and this is primarily why, I think, the author elects to tell the story through the suddenly bereft protagonist. Nixon is at his best when writing directly about Box and his experiences.
And when at his best, all concerns for the political issues that tend to divide us as a nation are swept away by what really matters, the immediacy of personal experience:
Now, looking at the damage, Box couldn’t help imagining latex hands cracking open his son’s chest. He felt a surge of anger. What the hell were they looking for anyway? Wasn’t it obvious that it was hanging from his neck that had killed the kid? Box imagined them reaching into the excavated chest and lifting out the boy’s heart. They would have held it up, turned it towards the light and slowly rolled it over for closer inspection. How much had it weighed? he wondered.
Notwithstanding the odd stumble, Settler’s Creek, with its exploration of contemporary moral complexities, and with its evocation of a particular time and place, lingers in the mind as a fine novel. And, despite my not having read his Rocking Horse Road (a situation soon to be rectified), this novel, in my estimation, is a necessary and successful step forward for this award-winning short-story exponent in getting to grips with the technical complexities of the larger form. It seems obvious to me that, from the luminous and careful crafting of this novel, and his dedication to building on that craft, Carl Nixon is destined to become one of New Zealand’s leading writers.
BRETT LUPTON is a writer and musician who lives in Dunedin. He is currently completing a PG (dip) Arts in English at the University of Otago.